My dad is a complicated man. My relationship with him, as I expect is true for many folks, is equally complicated. He is 70. I am 35. For exactly ½ of his life, I have been a part of it. But I wonder what happened in that first part – the first 35. The years of his life that were about a man I didn’t know. That I’ll probably never know because having me and my sisters and marrying my mother didn’t erase that guy, but probably fundamentally changed him to the point where he isn’t sure he remembers that guy. I get that. I get how family can do that.
But still I wonder about that part of him I never knew that laid the groundwork for the husband, and father, and grandfather that he would and is still evolving into. And I wonder a lot about all the stuff he doesn’t talk about: the good stuff and hard stuff and messy stuff and truth-y stuff that daughters aren’t supposed to know, but if they did would tell them so much more about the man behind their father. When I am in search of this, of him, I look to his pictures.
My father is an amateur photographer. He’ll tell you he does it just for fun – that he’s not quite good enough to show his photographs. It’s his armor: his way of protecting himself from getting hurt, from failing at something he loves. But his pictures are his story, his truth. What I love is his perspective: the moments he lingers on, the objects, the faces, the colors – the stuff that he never says a word about. It’s all there: sometimes in black and white, sometimes in full color.
In his best pictures, people are rarely looking at him or the camera lens. He is capturing more a moment, less a person. Like the black and white still of my mother. It is 1970 and she is sitting inside an antique book shop housed in a barn down by the shore. The sun is streaming in through the window as she sits beside a newborn baby carrier. It is an amazing portrait of a new mother, seemingly glowing both from the sun beating in behind her and from the joy of finally being with her baby. Or the black and white of his father – my grandfather – a man far more stern and of far fewer words than my own. He is wrapped in his talis and tefillin. He is lost in morning prayer. It is an exquisite portrait, less of my grandfather and more of his faith. And there is the picture of my mother holding my niece when she is around six months old. My mother is laughing, holding her on her lap, smiling contentedly. It is a beautiful picture of his wife, his first love, becoming a grandmother.
And there are a few pictures – albeit not many – with him actually in it. Most were captured during that hazy chapter of his life before I entered it. There is one that I think of often of him and my mother on a beach. They are leaning in to each other. He is resting his chin on the top of her head. He is beaming, like the way you do when you are truly happy and in love. I see the man he was. It tells me part of his story. And as I look through and remember and revisit the moments and photographs that make up the remaining chapters, whether he is in the picture or not I realize the rest of the story he is telling me. I am more aware of the man he is. Of the moments that matter to him. Through his lens, he’s been in the picture the whole time.